If you've driven through Big Spring in the past few weeks, you probably noticed the red neon Hotel Settles sign, shining like a beacon over the city and the surrounding West Texas plains.
Developers flipped the switch on the sign—and on a new era for the Settles—on December 28 with the opening of the meticulously renovated hotel. The six-year, $30 million renovation resurrects an historic but long-neglected structure that sat vacant and deteriorating for 30 years.
"When we fired the sign up for the first time in 30 years, we could hear cars all over town honking," says Brint Ryan, chairman of the Settles Hotel Development Company. "You can't miss it."
The 15-story hotel is the tallest building in Big Spring and served as a center of community activity for decades after it first opened in 1930. A Howard County rancher, W.R. Settles, built the hotel during the oil boom of the 1920s for $500,000, Ryan said. Abilene architect David Castle designed the building, which was one of several Art Deco hotels built in West Texas during the time period.
But with the onset of the Great Depression and the concurrent drop in oil prices, Settles couldn't make the payments for the project, and he ended up losing both the hotel and his ranch, which he had put forth as collateral.
"So it was a financial disaster for them, but it was a magnificent hotel," Ryan said.
In the following decades, the Settles changed ownership numerous times, and hosted many a local wedding reception, professional conference, service club meeting, and the like.
"But after 50 years of deferred maintenance, ownership changes, and failure to really keep the building up, it began to fall into decline," Ryan said. "When I was growing up, by the '70s, it had deteriorated to the point to where it had become for all intents a flophouse, a house of ill repute."
In 1980, the hotel closed, and the conventional wisdom was that it was likely gone for good. Various developers considered plans to rehabilitate the building—which at some point became city property over unpaid taxes—but they arrived at the same conclusion: The hotel was beyond repair.
It wasn't until 2006 that Brint Ryan became involved. Ryan, a Big Spring native who graduated from Big Spring High School in 1982, is founder, chairman, and CEO of Ryan LLC, a big-time tax services firm based in Dallas.
Ryan says he got a call about a potential downtown Big Spring renovation project, which led to his interest in the Settles.
"I actually just fell in love with the property," he said. "It's a phenomenal building, but it was just about as close to total destruction as you can imagine."
The decay was remarkable. Part of the roof had caved in. On one floor, the dead pigeons were piled waist-high, Ryan said. But he decided to buy the building from the city for $75,000, despite an appraised value of negative $250,000.
As plans began to take shape, the city ponied up a $3 million economic development incentive to get started, Ryan said. A year-long abatement project to remove lead paint and asbestos began in 2006, resulting in the removal of about 700 tons of debris.
"We just about filled up the city landfill with that stuff" Ryan said.
The ensuing redevelopment project took five years, culminating in last month's re-opening. Along with 65 guest rooms, the hotel has event and meeting spaces, a pool, a Jacuzzi, a fitness studio, the Settles Grill, and the Pharmacy Bar & Parlor.
Ryan said he was motivated to undertake the project because of the building's qualities—"an architectural gem," he marvels—and the opportunity to participate in an important community project in his hometown.
"And three, everybody I talked to, they said 'Oh no, that can't be done,'" Ryan said. "And anytime I'm told I can't do it, my personality is to go do it, just to prove you wrong."
Ryan is thrilled with the results. The renovations took into account the building's original blueprints, and the National Park Service has accepted the hotel for its national register of historic places, he said.
"We restored it as close as possible to the original as you can imagine," Ryan said. "W.R. Settles, if he walked in the lobby today, he'd recognize the place."
Photos are by Mark Knight/Courtesy of Hotel Settles.